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An Iraq Veteran, Heroin Addict, Bank Robber And Debut Novelist

Nico Walker wrote his semi-autobiographical novel <em>Cherry </em>while in federal prison for armed bank robbery.
Courtesy of Nico Walker
Nico Walker wrote his semi-autobiographical novel Cherry while in federal prison for armed bank robbery.

Nico Walker is in jail for robbing banks.

He can use the pay phone for 15 minutes at a time, and then he has to wait a half-hour. It took a while to do an interview.

That's also sort of the way he wrote his debut novel, Cherry — on a typewriter, with a hundred-or-so other guys looking over his shoulder.

"It was something that I was doing when I was locked up," he says. "Something to pass the time. But I didn't — I wasn't planning to write a novel, you know, autobiographical or anything like that."

But it's pretty autobiographical. The unnamed narrator of Cherry is naked and vulnerable — literally, in the first pages of the book, he's stripped and gets ice shoved down his underwear.

Walker's writing has a similar effect. Booklist called it "a masterpiece," and Vulture's headline reads "Nico Walker's Cherry Might Be the First Great Novel of the Opioid Epidemic."

Walker's narrator and his college girlfriend fall into what they know is love — but also know won't last. He drops out of school and joins the Army.

The humor works because Walker and his narrator have no pretensions — not about love, or about being a combat-decorated Iraq veteran. Even in boot camp and heading for Iraq, Walker's narrator still feels like an imposter, and he suspects everyone around him does too.

Walker writes about Iraq from a grunt's-eye level. The soldiers are playing video games, watching porn, huffing computer duster. They're also going on mission after mission to kick in doors.

The narrator is a combat medic, but still feels like a fraud as he fails to save the life of an Iraqi civilian. He spends less time treating his fellow soldiers than collecting their body parts after bomb attacks.

By the end of his deployment, he's too tired to pretend.

He talks his lieutenant out of a last dangerous foot patrol.

The only people who talk about Iraq like that are people who've been to Iraq. But Walker claims no moral authority.

"One of the great things about being in prison for armed robbery is you don't really have a lot further down to go on the scale of reputation, you know what I mean?" Walker says.

The narrator comes home and gets mostly back together with his wife. They do divorce but then get wedded together by addiction, first to pills and then heroin.

Without any money or dignity left — and without much going for him except a relatively cool head around guns, and a total insensitivity to lawful behavior outside a war zone — well, you can see where this is going.

Walker has two more years on his sentence, but things are looking up.

At last count, the book has sold in eight languages. Nico Walker says he's already using the money to pay back some of the banks he robbed.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.